Robert Browning: A Life Within Life
by Donald Thomas
Viking, 334 pp., $18.75
In his new biography of Browning, Donald Thomas takes us no great distance into the nature of the poet or his work. Yet the connection between the private man and the poems will tantalize anyone who examines Browning’s career. At the center of the dramatic monologues is usually a revelation of character. The protagonist may not realize what he is disclosing, but the poet lets him deliver facts that keep startling us while the personality that emerges remains stable.
Ultimately, such a poem invites us to think we have understood the speaker, have arrived—perhaps in spite of him—at a sight of a true self. Yet Browning’s narrative method, which is to compete with and outsmart the reader, can be discouraging. Is the poet craftily unveiling an essential reality, or is he determined to show us up?
In the very last lines of “A Forgiveness,” we learn that the monk hearing the confession of a man who has killed his adulterous wife was himself the dead woman’s lover. The turn is perhaps dazzling in conception, but do we not feel tricked? Do we not think of the poet rather than the revelation, and suspect that Browning would top or transform this surprise too if he could?
When the organist, in “Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha,” complains that he cannot fathom the meaning of the fugue he admires, are we to decide he is too shallow to grasp it, or that the meaning is not there? Browning commented that the fugue performed in the poem was a labyrinth “leading to nothing.” Yet the design of the monologue invites us to believe there is indeed a golden significance hidden from the musician.
The uncertainty whether the poet is cunningly planting genuine clues or playing an unfair game of hide-and-seek may tell us something about Browning’s personality. First with his mother, later with his wife, I think he habituated himself to conniving at opinions and tastes that went against the grain when he let himself reflect on them. Living at home until he was thirty-four, receiving a maternal bedtime kiss every night (regardless of when he came in), he believed that his ailments were often sympathetic with his mother’s. To his prospective bride he wrote that the “prolonged relation of childhood” delighted him. “I have been accustomed, by pure choice,” he said, “to have another will lead mine in the little daily matters of life”; and he invited his fiancée to assume such authority (August 13, 1846). Already, he had said, “I cannot presume to suggest thoughts to you, resolutions for the future—you must impart to me always” (August 10, 1846).
Such a pleasure in identifying himself with the character of others must have left him little opportunity to recognize his own. The ambiguity of the poems, I suspect, starts from the poet’s instinct of outward conformity. In her biography, Betty Miller reminds us of how Browning disliked being seen when not fully dressed.[^2 …